It was four years ago this March 19 that the United States invaded Iraq, triggering massive street protests in San Francisco and a widely criticized military occupation that has become one of the longest in US history.
The war has proved to be as bloody and shortsighted as its opponents always claimed it would be. More than 3,100 American soldiers have been killed, as have as many as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, with little hope of the violence abating anytime soon, despite President George W. Bush's recent deployment of 21,500 more troops. The war has cost the United States about $400 billion so far, a price tag increasing by about $250 million every day of the occupation. And it has spurred anti-Americanism around the world.
Opinion polls show a strong majority in the United States favors immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and a growing number of Democrats in Congress now appear to be moving in that direction. But antiwar activists are planning an escalation of their own, arguing that only through a ramped-up and more widely disseminated peace movement will this war come to an end.
To mark this inauspicious anniversary, United for Peace and Justice, the nation's largest antiwar coalition, has issued a call for "a massive outpouring of opposition to the war in locally based, decentralized actions throughout the U.S." from March 17 to 19. It's a clear departure from the peace movement's norm of massive, centralized marches located in Washington, DC, New York, and San Francisco.
Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of San Francisco on March 20, 2003, with more than 1,500 people arrested in civil disobedience actions that effectively shut down the city. Antiwar groups are still hoping for a big turnout in the city next week, even as they shift their strategy to include more of Middle America.
Instead of relying on charismatic visionaries, influential organizations, and hierarchical organizing in the big cities, the new strategy calls on citizens to take the initiative and organize from Mobile, Ala., to Jonesboro, Ark., to Fayetteville, N.C. and demonstrate a broad base of active opposition to the war.
"The resistance isn't only in San Francisco," Jim Haber, a member of the steering committee for United for Peace and Justice Bay Area, told the Guardian. "Large demonstrations here get attributed to San Francisco being out of step with the rest of the country although less so these days."
While it is important to have big showings, Haber said it's also important to demonstrate that the opposition is widespread. "Rather than making people who want to protest come to us, we're going to them and they're all over."
Several of the affinity groups that were instrumental in the shutdown of San Francisco four years ago are regrouping for a rally and nonviolent direct action at Chevron's headquarters in San Ramon.
"Four years ago we not only shut down San Francisco's Financial District, we also shut down Chevron," Antonia Juhasz, one of the organizers and a Tarbell fellow with Oil Change International, told us. "Neither our message nor our tactics have changed."
The Iraqi parliament is set to pass a law that would transform Iraq's nationalized oil system to a commercialized model, completely open to corporate pillaging, following the trail first blazed by the US-installed Coalition Provisional Authority, headed by L. Paul Bremer. "The law is the brainchild of the Bush administration," Juhasz said. "Now is a particularly critical time to expose the oil agenda behind the war."
David Solnit, a longtime organizer and member of the Bay Rising affinity group, told us, "This is a similarly strategic moment for the antiwar movement to escalate. Hopes of getting the Democrats to do anything are fading.